Annie McIntosh | 12/12/2018
Little choice is granted to us in childhood. If we get through this time unscathed we may find ourselves deeply anchored to the place in which we were raised, even if years may be required to unearth its pull on our identity.
Alfonso Cuaron’s languid, artful film sings of the time when our newness on earth has us at our most curious and observant, when landscapes are unblinkingly absorbed and long regular days in a safe home leave us believing that routine means forever. A time before change changes us, and unveils all that we are yet to learn.
The children in the film might be an embodiment of the director’s own experience, but it is Cleo, their nanny and house servant, who is the centre of the world. She is of them - genuinely loved and sought after - and she is Other - a mestiza who works for white Mexicans and lives in a tiny room shared with another servant on the roof of the family’s home. Roma speaks to a common love; but one that has its conditions.
In the same way that here a male director benevolently tells a woman’s story, Cleo is adored by the family - as long as she performs her duties. When the film was hamfistedly introduced at it’s opening at a media screening as one about “women - an important subject in today’s world”, the feeling that remained was that the ‘Other’ is only celebrated if and when there is value for the ‘Accepted’ to celebrate them.
Roma’s achingly slow opening - you may have heard about it - holds an ace. A lengthy shot of the ground might easily annoy - we pay to entertained, don’t we? - but perhaps we could yield instead to the trance-inducing rhythm of sloshing water. This is the tempo of another place and time.
Mexico DF 1971 is a year of deep unrest for the city and the interior life of Cleo. Cuaron, the one shot director of orbital space spectacle Gravity, is able to create an impactful visual drama without a Damocles’s sword in sight. Our gaze is invited to the screen as it is in front of grand paintings - we are given time to notice, feel and reflect. The stillness of each shot dominates, allowing us to see the abandoned doll in the milk crate, the Aztec boogyman in the conga line. Joyfully the steady camera sets us down in the grass at a 1970s shooting party where kids run amok and fighting a wildfire is no reason to set down your martini. And when we watch the young abandoned family sit underneath the giant crab of some tourist attraction, trying to cheer themselves with ice-cream while a festive wedding party celebrates nearby, the odd mix of feelings released when grief is held up against life’s persistent absurdities is all of ours to know and own.
Mexico’s capital, with its heaving public services, muddy cuidads perdidas and awesome institutional art, lends its power to Cleo’s journey. Light-handed in her resilience to life’s slings and arrows, she is someone you want very much to win. In bed, wide-eyed with self conscious joy as her naked lover performs some martial arts (for her edification, thanks fella), a visceral intimacy seems to arise from her open expression rather than any earnest preening going on. When the young man later rejects Cleo and tries to shame her by calling her a slave, the bewildered gentle response she exhales leads us to believe that it is in this very moment she is learning that people can be dishonourable. Cleo quietly shows us that she could never be that way.
Roma is a tender and careful retelling of the power of a childhood. Its transgressive metre and entwining of history and memory remind us of the imprint left from our own unchosen pasts.